Horse head statue returns home to China

Visitors viewing the bronze horse head looted from the Old Summer Palace by Anglo-French allied forces in 1860 at an exhibition in Beijing last week.
Visitors viewing the bronze horse head looted from the Old Summer Palace by Anglo-French allied forces in 1860 at an exhibition in Beijing last week.PHOTO: XINHUA

BEIJING • A well-known treasure from Yuanmingyuan, or the Old Summer Palace, finally came home to Beijing 159 years after it was looted.

A red bronze horse head statue was returned by the donation of 97-year-old collector and Hong Kong-Macau business magnate Stanley Ho, whose daughter Pansy Ho handed the statue over to China's National Cultural Heritage Administration (NCHA) in Beijing last Wednesday.

As a surprise for visitors to the National Museum of China, it appeared there last Wednesday and joined an exhibition displaying hundreds of priceless cultural relics that have been returned from overseas since 1949. The exhibit will run through Nov 27.

Built in 1707, Yuanmingyuan - the former imperial resort of the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911) - was often referred to as "the garden of gardens" for its lush landscapes and numerous temples, palaces and pavilions. It covered a 350ha area, about five times the size of the Forbidden City.

However, Anglo-French troops rampaged through the compound and set it on fire in 1860. Numerous national treasures, including 12 animal head statues within the Chinese zodiac, were looted in the mayhem.

Yuanmingyuan fell into ruins after the ransacking.

According to NCHA director Liu Yuzhu, the newly returned statue will be transferred to the administration of Yuanmingyuan ruins.

"The return of the statue marks a broken link of collective historical memory being reconnected," Mr Liu said.

The horse head bust was one of 12 decorative taps - in the form of 12 Chinese zodiac signs - that were for a fountain in the Old Summer Palace.


It appeared in Hong Kong for a Sotheby's auction in 2007 and NCHA immediately contacted the auctioneer to register its disagreement at the auction, arguing it was stolen. The administration expressed hope that it would be returned to its home "in a suitable way in the future".

To save it from being taken abroad again, Mr Ho negotiated with the seller and spent HK$69.1 million to get the statue in September 2007 and publicly exhibited it in Hong Kong and Macau to promote the protection of China's cultural relics.

"In the past 70 years' effort to reclaim lost Chinese cultural relics from overseas, Hong Kong and Macau compatriots have always contributed," Mr Liu said. "Ho is an outstanding representative among them."

The bust is the seventh of the 12 animal statues from the Yuanmingyuan fountain to be returned to Beijing from overseas.

In 2003, a donation by Mr Ho also returned a pig head statue to Beijing-based Poly Art Museum.

"After the opening of the exhibition, my colleagues and I wrote to Mr Ho exploring the possibility of letting the horse head travel northwards and get united with the other six," Mr Liu recalled. "Mr Ho's family gave warm feedback and decided to permanently donate it to the country."

Ms Ho said at the returning ceremony: "It's our family's gift for the 70th anniversary of the founding of New China and 20th anniversary of Macau's return to the motherland, and best wishes for our country's prosperity."

"Time cannot flow backwards," she said. "But I hope our efforts can help return more national treasures lost from Yuanmingyuan and enable today's people to have a glimpse of the splendour of 'the garden of gardens'."

The 12 zodiac animals were designed by Italian Jesuit missionary and artist Giuseppe Castiglione, who served at the royal court of the Qing Dynasty. Its production mixed traditional Chinese craftsmanship and Western mechanics.

The whereabouts of the five remaining bronze zodiac heads remain unknown.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2019, with the headline 'Horse head statue returns home to China'. Subscribe